Five lessons from five years freelancing

This week, I’ve been invited back to the University of Southampton to speak at the end of the 12th annual Dynamo Enterprise Challenge. I attended the very first event in Winchester as a student in 2006, and I’ve been asked to share some of the lessons I’ve learned since then.

It’s timely as I’m also currently reflecting on half a decade of freelancing. This time five years ago, I had handed in my notice and started the process of establishing my business.

Here are five of the many lessons that freelance life has taught me:

1) Take the time you need to define your offer


Like any product, it’s hard to market yourself if you’re not clear about exactly what you’re offering, but it’s ok to take time to carve out your niche. Find interesting projects that take you out of your comfort zone and teach you more about your strengths and what you enjoy.

I came to realise that what I was really interested in was how organisations change and develop new initiatives, and the best thing that I could offer a busy and harassed project manager was to completely look after their communications, giving them one less thing to worry about.

2) Expect setbacks

Setbacks are inevitable, but as a small business you’re well placed to adapt rapidly.

I had two very clear avenues of work that I wanted to explore when I first went freelance. Neither of them came to fruition.

My contacts said ‘Let’s keep in touch!’ and ‘Let’s work together again!’ when I first started on my own, but the reality was that many of them didn’t have the time or budget to take the intention forward. But I got back up and carried on.

3) Know your price

The question I hear more than any other from new business owners is: How much should I charge?

The vast majority of new freelancers that I’ve come across have been undercharging.

I learned the hard way that it was easy to negotiate down, but much harder to put your prices up later. After a year, I worked out what my time was really worth by benchmarking against my peers and working backwards from my desired income.

There are always interesting projects that I’m happy to make an exception for, but I assess these as and when they come along.

4) Manage your time

You might be conditioned to 9-5 life, but that doesn’t mean that’s when you’ll be at your most productive or your most creative.

If you’re at your best first thing in the morning, or your creative juices are flowing at midnight, freelance life can give you the flexibility to take advantage of this.

While I might find that there are some weeks when I’m working unusual hours Monday through Sunday, one of my priorities starting up on my own was balance, so I’ve actively made sure that there’s plenty of time for the other things that are important to me: Travel, home life and involvement in my local community.

5) Use that freedom to design your future

So, what else to do with that valuable flexibility?

The chances are, if you’ve started freelancing early in your career, you probably have a few other roles ahead of you – however much you might enjoy what you’re currently doing.

Set-aside some of your time each month to start experimenting with your other interests. Want to write a book? Why not start with a blog first? 

Dave Evans from the Stanford Design Lab outlines a helpful way to approach this

Going freelance gave me the freedom to pursue one of my other passions, enterprise education, and this subsequently developed into a completely separate sideline.

That’s just five of many lessons. I’m always keen to hear from fellow freelancers, and to chat to people who are thinking about starting up on their own.


Case study: Communicating a business improvement project

In 2014, I was asked to develop an internal communications plan for a new business improvement initiative in a university. I would need to think about how to ‘launch’ the project, raise its profile and engage relevant colleagues.

Process improvement communications - portrait crop

This was the perfect assignment for me – it appealed to my interest in organisational change and gave me the opportunity to contribute at the beginning of a brand new piece of work.

Under pressure to demonstrate progress, project managers can often be keen to churn out communications as quickly as possible, without stopping to think about what they’re trying to say and who they need to say it to.

In this case, I had the time to prepare a simple but detailed plan that helped to ensure that communications from the project were consistent and effective. How? By considering Why, Who, What, How and When.

Why are you communicating?

What do you actually want to achieve? How is this contributing to the overall goal of the project? Are you trying to raise awareness? Are you asking people to participate? Are you building up to change?

I start by asking these sort of questions, and then work in partnership with a team to develop some objectives for the communications. (I often write a first draft and then revisit it to make the objectives SMARTer.)

In this case, the team wanted to begin by educating colleagues about the benefits of process improvement and how it could help make their working lives easier. Then, with the groundwork laid, they would start to encourage colleagues to participate, generate their own ideas and train as facilitators.

Who do you actually need to communicate with?

It’s tempting to say ‘everyone!’ – but that’s rarely the case.

When I get a team together to think about their stakeholders, they are always surprised. There are normally far more individual groups than they realise – and those groups often have very different levels of involvement and awareness.

I like to meet with stakeholders, so I can hear first hand what their views are and whether there are any early misconceptions that need to be tackled. Once I’ve done that, I work with a project team to prioritise the list and think generally about:

  • What the stakeholders already know
  • Who/what they’re influenced by
  • What the team want them to do
  • What the stakeholders need in order to do this

For example, the CEO of your organisation might be on your list. They might not be directly involved with your project, but you might want them to be on message if asked about it in open meetings or by the press. A simple briefing every few months by the project sponsor could be the solution.

In the case of this project, the team knew that a certain level of ‘middle manager’ was most likely to initiate or approve new process improvement work, so we targeted them first. Then we provided templates to help them talk to their own staff about the work.

What do you actually want to say?

I always start by developing three simple messages, to be used consistently by a project.

This can often be the hardest part of the planning process. I take in a lot of information from a team, listen to the language that they use and distill it all down to the most important details.

This simplicity and consistency increases the overall impact.

I include supplementary messages and information in the plan – for example, anything that might be targeted at particular stakeholders.

I also start to think about how the language can be used to influence behaviours or engagement (creating social norms, for example) or where I might need some analogies to explain complex details. Sometimes I write up some key principles for the communications, which can be used to test content before it goes live.

Finally, I summarise a piece of work in less than 140 characters, because if I can’t do that then it’s still too complicated.

How will you communicate with your stakeholders?

What channels will you use? Sometime this might be as simple as a face-to-face conversation, or a regular email. For an internal campaign, you might make use of existing corporate channels, such as blogs, intranet news feeds and newsletters. You might decide that it’s necessary to create a new channel if, for example, you have hard to reach groups, like staff who don’t have regular access to a computer.

In a plan, I note some practical information, such as who is in charge of the channel, how often we should aim to use it and, of course, who the main audience is.

For this project, I experimented with using Twitter to promote the team’s activities internally. With so many different workshops taking place on campus, I predicted that we wouldn’t be short of content, and that Twitter could help the team communicate with hard to reach academics, as well as sharing best practice with process improvement groups in other organisations.

When will you communicate?

With the first four questions answered, I start to prepare a week-by-week plan that aligns with a team’s work and priorities, plus other relevant events and activities. These are normally fairly flexible.

I like to think about how different activities are linked – if, for example, I was planning something that was going to capture a lot of people’s attention in week 6, I’d want to make sure I had something to follow up with in weeks 7, 8 and 9.

For really busy projects, with lots of important deadlines, these plans might be day-by-day. Maybe even hour-by-hour.

Measure, refine, measure, refine

Finally, I document how the communications will be measured, so that a team can judge the effectiveness and refine when necessary.

This includes regularly capturing feedback – from chance comments in a staff room through to more detailed survey outcomes – and using this to adapt the work.

A quick note on choosing the right visuals

A single image, or set of images, can help create consistency across your communications, and make them more recognisable to your audience.

(Finding an image that fits with your message and can be adapted for different channels isn’t easy, though.)

Changing the image after a period of time can then help to signify a shift in your work – e.g. the start of a new phase.

I commissioned a professional but reasonably priced photographer to come into one of this team’s workshops and get some shots of a big group of staff collaborating to improve a process. Anyone who’s been involved in this sort of work in the past will know these are very active sessions, with people up on their feet and scribbling on post-it notes with chunky markers. Far better for a photographer than most meetings!

Just an hour with this photographer gave the team their ‘key’ image, as well as a set of other good quality, consistent photos that they could use in their materials.


Having prepared this plan, I was commissioned to help deliver it. I spent, on average, 3-4 days a month with the project team over the course of a year. In that time, the work grew into a fully-staffed and in-demand unit, running regular improvement workshops, hosting lunchtime seminars and training a network of staff as facilitators.

The strong relationship that I built with the team meant that I could always stay one or two steps ahead with the communications, preparing content in advance, predicting what would come next for the their work and identifying new colleagues to engage. Sensing my obvious interest in the subject, they increasingly involved me in their wider work, including how to measure the impact of the improvements and how to create lasting, meaningful change across the institution.

It was one of my most rewarding projects to date.

If I can help you plan the communications for your own project, do get in touch.


Five lessons from the General Election

Barely a week has passed and already a huge amount has been written about the outcome of this year’s election. I spent a lot of the subsequent seven days stuck on trains, which gave me time to think about the lessons for those of us working in communications and campaigns.

  1. Tackle negative perceptions head-on
    Labour’s difficulties started at the beginning of the parliament, not the beginning of the campaign. The long leadership election in 2010 gave the Tories space to frame the debate around responsibility for the 2008 financial crash (someone described this to me as ‘define hard and define early’). Without a strong, consistent line of rebuttal, the view that Labour could not be trusted to run the economy became entrenched, and by 2015 it was too late to reverse. If you believe that ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ when it comes to elections, then this put Labour in a difficult position even before the first leaflet was delivered.
  2. Prepare simple and consistent messages
    If we remember anything from this election, it will likely be Long Term Economic Plan vs. Chaos. As painful as it seemed watching ministers parrot these lines on Newsnight – the so-called Crosbyisation of the Conservative Party – it worked. Crucially, not only was the message about a contrast with their opponent (important), but it could also be reframed easily (also important). So, when Labour wanted to talk about the NHS, the Tories said that a strong health service required a strong economy, and when the rise of SNP became apparent, the Tories pivoted from economic chaos to coalition chaos. Labour, on the other hand, fell into a common trap: they had too much to say. They had a big list of things that they wanted us to be outraged about and another list of things that they were going to do to fix the country, but there was no simple, compelling thread that held the whole narrative together. The Tories had a similar issue in 2010, when the ‘Big Society’ became an intermittent and confusing focus of a campaign that should have been relentlessly about the economy.
  3. Think about your messenger
    I like Ed Miliband. I came away from the election believing him to be an honest and decent guy, but he simply didn’t do enough to persuade people that he was ready to lead (the daily battering that he took from our newspapers probably didn’t help). The same can be said for Ed Balls, who also struggled to connect with big chunks of the electorate. It was telling that the Tories, by contrast, benched the unpopular Michael Gove for the election, and then promoted him again immediately afterwards.
  4. Remember your audience
    There’s a broad point here that Labour will agonise over for months to come: you have to be able to break down, understand and empathise with your audience. Your overall messages should remain consistent, but you should re-frame them for different groups. Much has been written about Labour’s failure to appeal to an ‘aspirational’ centre ground. At the heart of the campaign were important issues such as the number of people on zero-hour contracts or using food banks, or the struggles of ‘generation rent’, but it wasn’t enough just to ask Middle England to be outraged about these things, Labour also needed to paint a picture of how everyone else’s lives would be improved, too.
  5. Empower your volunteers and demonstrate progress
    Lastly, Labour borrowed a small technique from the US that I like, but I know others are less keen on: They sent regular ‘state of the race’ emails to members. These messages were presented as an honest and in-depth assessment of the campaign, and they not only gave recipients a sense that they were getting an inside look, they also very clearly described the progress that was being made – in Labour’s case the number of doorstep conversations.

That’s my short contribution to this year’s election analysis. If you’re thinking about any of these issues in your business – or maybe you’re running a campaign and you need to increase the impact of your communications – do get in touch.

communications enterprise

When communications meets enterprise

This weekend, the two strands of my work will be coming together. I’ll be attending a student enterprise workshop in Southampton and delivering a session on planning a communications campaign.

I’ll only have an hour, but I’ll be getting the students to think about Why, Who, What, How and When – in that order.

It can take time to consider and research each of these, but I want the students to understand why this sort of preparation is important. Time spent planning communications in advance will make their campaigns more effective and help them to get more from a modest marketing budget.

I’ll report back on how they get on.

If you’re working on a project and you’d like to look at the Why, Who, What, How and When for your communications, I’d be glad to help – just get in touch.